Hassan Aden Ibrahim

Refugee students describe adjusting to life at Vancouver Island University

NANAIMO – Committee at Nanaimo university brings students from Syria and Somalia to study.

By Glenn Drexhage

Night after night, for months on end, Mohammad Tahhan crouched in front of his computer and searched for signs of hope.

Tahhan was looking for a program – any program – that would allow him to start over in a new country. As a Syrian in the bustling capital city of Amman, Jordan, Tahhan’s life had become increasingly grim in the few years since 2011. That’s when unrest began surfacing in Syria; the situation rapidly devolved into a civil war that rages to this day.

Before those developments, Tahhan describes relations between Jordanians and Syrians as friendly. Although he was born and raised in Jordan, Tahhan is considered Syrian due to his parentage. He lived with his five siblings at his parents’ home, and worked in various social media and marketing jobs.

Then the Syrian conflict began taking shape. “From nowhere – you don’t know how or where or why – everything changed,” says Tahhan, 25.

His work prospects dried up and a planned marriage fell apart. Life was increasingly bleak; in 2014, Tahhan’s grandfather and cousin died from bombing in Aleppo, a Syrian city under siege.

“I had a wonderful life. I’m a positive person – I like to think that nothing is impossible,” says Tahhan. “But I started to think differently.”

At long last, however, Tahhan’s online searching bore fruit. He found out about the World University Service of Canada and its student refugee program.

After numerous applications and much effort, Tahhan found himself en route to Nanaimo and Vancouver Island University, where he is now studying digital media and business.

Each year, the local committee sponsors student refugees by covering their living costs, including tuition and housing, for one year.

The local committee, run by student volunteers and supported by the VIU Students’ Union and the Faculty of International Education, typically sponsors two students annually. However, this year it was also able to sponsor Tahhan, thanks to a VIU fundraising effort that launched in 2015.

Along with Tahhan, two Somali students – Hassan Aden Ibrahim, 25, and Mano Mohamed Maow, 22 – were sponsored by VIU. Ibrahim and Maow came to VIU from Kenya, where they were living in the massive Dadaab refugee camp. Both had lived there for years to escape the decades-long civil war in Somalia.

Since arriving in Nanaimo near the end of August, all three have been acclimating to life in their new home country.

“Everything is different – the climate, the people, the culture,” says Maow.

That said, they’ve also been embraced by the local community.

“We thought we would be treated differently. But what I have seen is friendly and very welcoming people,” says Ibrahim. “I felt like I had other brothers and sisters.”

Both Somali students are pursuing their Bachelor of Business Administration at VIU.

“People here are so kind,” adds Tahhan, who admits to having “very complicated feelings” about coming to Canada and VIU. While he was excited to finally have another chance in a new country, he was also torn about leaving behind his family and friends.

Now, he’s reflective about the importance of moving forward despite facing huge upheaval. “There is no finish line,” he says. “It’s about you – and whether you stop or not.”

Crystal Huang, co-chairwoman of the local committee, says the aim is to help sponsored students integrate into campus and community life.

For example, in October the group put on a “Friendsgiving” potluck dinner for past and present sponsored students, faculty and volunteers.

“We are like family,” says Huang, an international student from Guangzhou, China who has volunteered for the committee since 2015. “We dance, we share, we cook – we won’t leave anyone behind.”

The local committee launched in 2009. It currently has about 20 active members, and Huang says more are always welcome.

For more information, please visit https://wuscviu.wordpress.com/.

Glenn Drexhage is a writer with VIU’s communications department.

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